IT is difficult to know where to start with Amsterdam. So, let’s begin with the words of 19th century philosopher Charles Baudelaire, who addressed the city as a person, as he may well do, given its unique character and moods: “These treasures, these furnishings, this luxury, this order, these perfumes and these miraculous flowers, they are you!”
By Barnaby Smith
Photos by Bryce Lowry
All this and more define Amsterdam. Too many people visit the city over a weekend and no more, which is not nearly enough time to indulge fully in its charms, especially if that weekend is devoted to indulging too much in the famed local greenery.
Central to its appeal is its size. This is no Paris or Rome, no large city where exploration is daunting to the point of despair. You can get to know Amsterdam and all its idiosyncracies in no more than a week, by foot.
(NB: since this article was first published, the local laws were in the process of being changed. It is likely that in 2012 only residents will legally be allowed to purchase marijuana from coffee shops in the Netherlands)
Let’s begin with the coffee shops (although this can be a dangerous strategy). People always give you a wry smile when you say you are going to Amsterdam, as if you must be making a sacred pilgrimage exclusively for the purpose of enjoying the high quality, reasonably priced and legal weed.
The city is littered with establishments catering for everyone. Some are chaotic club-like places with throbbing music and bright lights, while some appreciate the more mellow side of smoking, with sofas and quietude accompanying your puff.
The best example of the former is the colourful Dampkring café, and the latter, Siberie, while special mention must go to the pioneering café Rusland, an energetic and vibrant establishment and one of Amsterdam’s first coffee shops.
However, do bear in mind when enjoying these coffee shops and cafés, often identified by a neon palm tree (slightly less obvious than a marijuana leaf, you see) in the window, that the stuff here is usually much stronger than the run-off-the-mill London fare. Also, while the decriminalisation of cannabis contributes to a fairly laid back vibe in the city, native Amsterdammers can get understandably irritated with the influx of drug tourists from all over the western world and like anywhere else, it’s not cool to toke away in public.
Because of the proliferation of these places that fry your mind, retailers have realised that selling sweets in the city centre reaps large profits from munchie-craving revellers.
There are many delectable sweets available, but try not make the same mistake as this very silly writer, when he thought he’d found the greatest chocolate milk drink in the world, all thick and delicious and satisfying, only to discover on the third consecutive day of consuming the beverage that it was in fact custard.
Downing pint after pint of chocolate custard must be a new low (or high?) for Aussie foibles abroad.
Get beyond the smoke
It is, however, important to remember that Amsterdam offers so much more than just getting high. There are pleasures to be had in this town that go so far as to make you realise life isn’t such a chore after all.
The Rijksmuseum is amongst the most inspiring and beautiful galleries in Europe. From spectacular Rubens to the sophistication of Rembrandt’s mature period and exquisite Vermeers, this huge labyrinth of art will leave you foot sore by the end of the day, but you will also have enjoyed a quite breathtaking aesthetic experience.
Across the Museumplein you’ll also find the esteemed Van Gogh Museum which is certainly worth a trip, and for the more sentimental and historical of us, Anne Frank’s house. Decidedly more fun is the Sex Museum, near Centraal Station.
Follow the water
Amsterdam’s canals are the trademark of this amazing city, and a meander through them is essential.
The five central canals are collectively known as the Grachtengordel (Girdle of Canals), and were constructed as part of a 17th century urban extension project, which is also responsible for the radically windy streets that charm with their cobblestones, railings with chained bicycles, and beautifully antique houses. It is distressingly easy, but lots of fun, to get lost amongst these alleys.
Not far from all these pretty bits is Damrak, the main drag. Here you will find some of the most impressive street artists in the world, though the shopping is uninspiring.
Into the night
Just off Damrak to the east is Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
Prostitutes sit in display windows while touts help to attempt to attract clientele. It’s a big business full of wealthy professionals, and the girls even have health insurance and pension schemes. It is a bit seedy, but has become one of Amsterdam’s foremost tourist attractions. As part of recent austerity measures, in January this year the Dutch government announced a crackdown on the country’s famed prostitutes – they should be paying 19% sales tax on their services insists the country’s Tax Service.
For nightlife, Amsterdam is a hotbed of clubs, bars and live music of all kinds, and of course, the gay scene here is throbbing.
Happily, the cost of entertainment is very reasonable. The Concertgebouw is the fulcrum of the city’s wonderful classical music programmes – Amsterdam has two fine orchestras – while a prod around Amsterdam’s nooks and crannies yield many small jazz clubs pumping with bohemian urgency. Music fans can also enjoy a browse around several of the utterly fabulous second-hand record stores in the city.
All of this and we haven’t even mentioned Baudelaire’s furnishings, flowers or perfumes. The furnishings seem just fine and the flowers both being sold and in public gardens are indeed wonderful, but the abiding smell in smoky Amsterdam certainly isn’t perfume.
The city is a glorious assault on the senses from all angles.